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God’s Gift

By John Banville

God’s Gift is John Banville’s second adaptation of a play by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century German playwright, Heinrich von Kliest. The first was 1994’s The Broken Jug, and now we have a version of Kliest’s Amphitryon, a myth also tackled by Moliere.

As Hugh Haughton has pointed out in his article ‘The ruinous house of identity’ in the first issue of The Dublin Review, God’s Gift ‘forms a curious theatrical complement’ to Banville’s latest novel, Eclipse. It is during performing in the third act of Kliest’s play that the actor-narrator of that book has his crack-up, and corpses on stage, after delivering the line ‘Who then, if not I, is Amphitryon?’ But, to quote Haughton once again, ‘Banville’s version of Amphitryon is not the play his fictional actor Cleave broke down in’, and the aforementioned line does not appear, since ‘Banville has played fast and loose with Kliest’s text, cutting scenes and speeches, and it all in Irish terms.’ So, the Greek tale of how Zeus assumed the likeness of Amphitryon, in order to have his way with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena, and gave a banquet while so disguised, but Amphitryon comes home and claims the honour of being master of house during these proceedings, is transposed to Wexford in 1798. In the traditional story, the crisis of the theatricality of identity is resolved, as far as the servants and guests are concerned, with the line ‘he who gave the feast was to them the host’.

In Banville’s version Amphitryon becomes the Anglo-Irish General Ashburningham, fresh from victories at Vinegar Hill and Boolavogue, while Alcmena becomes Minna. Kliest’s Sosia, servant of the General, becomes Souse, and his wife is Kitty. Jupiter and Mercury are as you were, appearing in the forms of Ashburningham and Souse.

While it is difficult to see what the 1798 setting adds to the drama of gods and mortals and impersonation and usurpation, aside from providing a local habitation, God’s Gift once again demonstrates that Banville has effective dramaturgical powers, as the recent production by Barabbas Theatre Company verified to satisfied audiences. It is a light-hearted exploration of a serious theme. But for a more profound study of how someone can inadvertently become their own ghost, check out the novel with which it was published simultaneously as an accompaniment.

First published in Books Ireland




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